Will Schwarzenegger lose the line item veto?

While Schwarzenegger’s cold shoulder to social causes is readily apparent, his ability to cut spending from appropriation bills using the line item veto may be at risk today. Lawsuits contesting the use of the veto early in his gubernatorial career (St. John’s Well Child and Family Center et al. v. Schwarzenegger et al.) were heard in San Francisco by the state’s court of appeals this week.

The line item veto may seem like an inconsequential issue, but it’s important, and should be most important to the fiscally conservative in the audience. The line item veto allows the Governor may cut spending that made it into the bill as compromise measures- ‘pork’ spending by figuratively (and maybe literally? Not sure) crossing the line out of the bill, thus preserving most of the bill while shaving off superfluous areas. Of course, the line item veto does not have to be limited to pork, the Governor may cut areas of the bill that were the product of hard won negotiation.

Where one camp argues that the line item veto is an important and helpful tool that the executive branch can use to preserve the meat of a bill while trimming the fat, the opposition argues that the line item veto can turn governors into legislative butchers. They argue that the line item veto unfairly undermines the negotiating process that produced the spending bill in the first place. The California Initiative process is the people’s equivalent to the line item veto, but reversed; where the line item veto skips the legislative deliberation before cutting parts of a bill, the initiative process skips legislation deliberation in order to create a bill. Both cases are somewhat disturbing in that they are popular methods of getting around dealing with the California legislature, where issues get a thorough inspection and vetting. What does it mean that both the people and executive branch of a state seek to bypass its legislature? Either for efficiency, impatience, or ease of co-opting power; in any case, disturbing.

The line item veto’s history is equally disturbing. Its first use was by the Confederates in the Civil War. It then made it into the procedures of many states, and was temporarily adopted by the federal government. It was struck down in federal court, indicating that the plaintiffs in the Schwarzenegger case may have some substance to work with.

In times of fiscal stress, it’s important that California make hard choices about spending. When there is less money, there MUST be less spending. This is a difficult thing for Californians, who tend to approve of social services (though only at a fraction of the rate and coverage Northeastern states provide) to understand. It is also an argument for building flexibility into programs; setting up temporary programs, or programs that can grow and contract with the government’s ability to support them. This leaves fewer options for governmental support of citizens. However, unless we improve the income end of California’s income statement, the outflow has to stop somewhere, and a line item veto is a tolerable way helping to staunch the fiscal hemorrhage.